Brainwashed agents enter Whedon’s Dollhouse

Does Eliza Dushku have the range necessary to transform herself every week—not only for the Dollhouse’s clients, but for viewers?

By Michelle Welch

Joss Whedon’s new sci-fi series Dollhouse introduces us to Echo (Eliza Dushku), Mattel’s new Fill-in-the-Blank Barbie. Echo is an Active, a “Doll” working for the super-illegal and super-high-tech organization nicknamed “the Dollhouse.” A “needs fulfillment” service, Dollhouse furnishes clients—those who can cover the high-priced rental fee—with human “volunteers” whose personalities have been wiped clean in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fashion and replaced with an engineered persona customized to the client’s needs. Dollhouse’s hipster techie Topher (Fran Kranz) imprints Actives with behaviors, skill sets, memories, and even weaknesses like nearsightedness or asthma, all manufactured from a combination of personalities from other individuals, sometimes resulting in repercussions for the Active. In the premiere, Echo is hired out as Fantasy Date Barbie for a wealthy bachelor in need of a Cinderella for the weekend. It’s no surprise that there will be the occasional Pretty Woman service to deliver, but Dollhouse promises a show about more than just tuning in each week to see Eliza Dushku prostitute herself unknowingly. The bulk of the pilot also sees Echo taking on the role of Hostage Negotiator Barbie, acting as an intermediary fixer for a client whose young daughter has been kidnapped for ransom.It’s an interesting premise and unlike anything else you’ll find on television, which both helps and hurts the show. Dollhouse could prove novel and intriguing enough for audiences, or it could backfire and be more “out there” than The X-Files’s truth. Whedon is, after all, no stranger to taking leaps. In 1997, a snarky dramedy about a 16-year-old female vampire slayer set to the themed backdrop of “High School is Hell” premiered and later inspired the gritty spin-off Angel about an L.A. private eye vampire with a soul. Whedon struck out at the plate, however, in 2002, when his brainchild space- western series Firefly was canceled with just 11 episodes aired. But now that Whedon has returned to television with Dollhouse, there is hope he might ride the rocket to further success toward which the summer internet sensation Dr. Horrible blasted him.As the show’s center, it will be interesting to see whether Dushku possesses the range necessary to transform herself every week for not just clients but viewers. Just out of the starting gate Dushku does what she does best as fun-loving Fantasy Date Barbie. But hidden behind “I’m intelligent” glasses and clad in a business suit as Miss Penn the Negotiator, she is already straining to be taken seriously. As the season unfolds we’ll see if Dollhouse has a little Meryl Streep they can program into Echo. Dollhouse’s supporting cast looks capable at least with Tahmoh Penikett of Battlestar Gallactica fame as an FBI agent investigating Dollhouse; Harry J. Lennix as Boyd Langton, fatherly man of morals bodyguard to Echo; and Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt, the calculating boss of Dollhouse who hired Echo for a five-year contract. Angel alum Amy Acker guests as the scarfaced Doll Doctor, Dr. Claire Saunders. The pilot also indicates, other Actives may come into prominence, including a rogue Active known as Alpha. Alpha’s existence hints that Echo will not remain a tabula rasa Doll either. As Echo says in a pre-Active state in the episode’s opening scene, hinting at a troubled past she‘s running from, “You ever try to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” Appropriate that her Active name is Echo?